Inside the Capitol

Monday, June 06, 2011

6-10 Why Are Indian Names So Popular?

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- An Albuquerque television station still is running ads for its news programs showing Harlyn Geronimo, of Mescalero, saying that using "Geronimo" as the code name for the operation to kill Osama bin Laden was a "slap in the face" to Indians.
And Jeff Houser, chairman of Geronimo's Fort Sill Apache tribe, has written President Barack Obama asking him to apologize for the blunder. That still may be pending.
Should the president apologize? I think it is possible for him to do so with the message that the code name was not meant to be derogatory, citing examples of the military using Indian names to instill courage and bravery in its troops.
The use of Geronimo in this instance, however, was a very bad idea. It invites comparisons between Geronimo and bin Laden. About the only valid comparison is that they both were very hard to catch.
As Houser wrote to the president, to equate Geronimo to a "cowardly terrorist is painful and offensive to our tribe and to all Native Americans."
Houser may be right about that statement. Whereas polls show that most Native Americans don't get particularly upset about sports teams with Indian names, this is a different situation.
Athletic teams want to invoke the fighting spirit of Native Americans defending their territory. Bin Laden was someone nearly all Americans wanted hunted down.
For its part, the Defense Department said code names typically are chosen randomly. That's hard to believe. The names of our military operations in the Middle East, such as Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom, carry definite meanings.
Names the Secret Service gives to presidents and the members of their families also seem to have subtle meanings. I can only figure that all those names fit into a different category than code names.
Whatever the Defense Department's excuse, it was a blunder. Maybe it was to be kept secret but such things always get out in these days of 24/7 news.
The simple solution is not to use any code names that might reasonably offend anyone. That means stay away from names of people, races, ethnicities and maybe even plants and animals. You know how some people are.
This sensitivity to use of Indian names was born out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Athletic teams at all levels were asked to drop their Indian names. Many elementary and secondary schools did. A few colleges went along. Professional teams completely ignored the requests.
Some teams reacted by increasing the emphasis on their Indian names. The Florida State Seminoles started a war chant and tomahawk chop. The practice spread to the Atlanta Braves. The Braves new field has electronic hatchet chops on walls all around the stadium accompanied by war chant music whenever a rally starts.
While our military can make an argument that naming aircraft, weapons and troop units after Indians pays homage to America's fighting heritage, professional sports teams tend to make a mockery out of it.
The Atlanta Braves for a while had Chief Noka-Homa come out of a teepee in the center field stands and do a war dance every time an Atlanta player knocked a homer. He was removed a couple of times but a losing streak for the team always followed.
American opinion is very split on this subject. But it is worth considering, especially for those of us who live in New Mexico from whence Geronimo came. He may come in second only to Billy the Kid as our state's most famous person.
Why aren't other minorities used by the military or sports teams? About the only exception I can think of is the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Is it because we actually revere Native Americans for their dignity and bravery?
Another possible reason our military uses so many Indian names is that they have a very honorable record for service to our country, topped off by the code talkers. But then other minorities also have enviable fighting records.
FRI, 6-10-11

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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